Wayward Manor review: More like Wayward Meh-nor

"Youth is no excuse for bad taste," the crotchety old house in Wayward Manor says as it watches a pair of gluttonous children chow down on sugary snacks within its creaking walls.

If youth doesn't excuse poor taste, then certainly there's no excuse for Wayward Manor's bland appeal, not when it comes from a successful studio – The Odd Gentlemen – and a world-renowned author – Neil Gaiman.

Wayward Manor seems as if it were a mobile game that somehow ended up on Steam for PC and Mac. Maybe it was put on Steam by mischievous poltergeists or vengeful spirits, but the fact remains that it doesn't feel, look or play like a desktop game.

This doesn't automatically equate a terrible experience, but, as a puzzle game, Wayward Manor leaves much to be desired in terms of complexity, and as a showcase for the writing of Neil Gaiman, it just barely scratches the surface of the narrative depth he's proven he can provide in comics, books and online ramblings. Rather than the scritch-scritch of razorblade claws creeping out of your bedroom closet, Wayward Manor's scratches are more like the pawing of a feisty, yet de-clawed, cat.
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Wayward Manor

Wayward Manor is a story about the special relationship between a ghost and the house it lovingly haunts, and how they work together to scare away the disrespectful, annoying Budd family. You play as the ghost, taking cues from the opinionated manor in order to sufficiently terrify the family members, one floor at a time. As a ghost, you're able to interact with anything that glows green with ectoplasm. You can knock bottles off of chandeliers to hit a family member on the head, for example, and once that person is hit, it adds another skull to your fright meter. Fill up all the skulls by crashing things into the Budds, ruining their clothes, getting them drunk and being generally scary, and you can then make all of the things fly around, causing the inhabitants to run into the next room, never to return to that floor.

There are light puzzle elements attached to the scares, such as making cobwebs appear on a statue to force the maid to walk to that corner, and then clicking a trap door that lets a big rat scurry into her path. The puzzles get slightly trickier – the gluttonous twins like to do things together, and they're not scared when they're with each other, so you must make them fight by knocking a single lollipop onto the floor or tainting their candy trough (yes, trough) with the gross green stuff in those ceiling bottles. Then, once they're separated, they can be scared by clicking on objects around and above them.

That's the thing with the puzzles in Wayward Manor: They're obvious. Even the more intricate puzzles that involve angling a series of tribal statues in the right ways to deflect a shooting arrow take a few simple clicks before they're solved. In the final chapter, which should by all rights contain the most intricate puzzles, a few sections are solved simply by clicking on the glowing objects placed in front of the characters, no thought necessary.

Wayward Manor offers "Secret Scares" in each level, tricks that are more difficult to pull off, but that aren't so difficult players won't accidentally achieve all of them in some levels (I certainly did).

The voice acting, music and sound effects of Wayward Manor are lovely – the narrator sounds like a posh mix of Alan Rickman and Joystiq EIC Ludwig Kietzmann, and each action presents fittingly fun pops, ghostly moans, surprised squeaks, crashes, bangs and shatterings. The music is fun and dark, reminiscent of simplified Nightmare Before Christmas melodies. These aspects all play into Wayward Manor's tone, which is also pleasant – not that the actual tone is "pleasant," rather, it's dark yet cheery, creepy and eccentric, in an entirely pleasing manner.

Gaiman's writing gives the manor personality and flair, and it contains a few memorable turns of phrase, but it can't elevate the game past what it is, mechanically – and that's largely thoughtless. The characters are charming, thanks in part to their written depictions, and the art style is adorably twisted, making all of the characters look like fancy little potato-humans with mustaches and make-up. But, again, the graphics would feel more at home on an iPad, as they're done up in jagged 3D models that tend to overlap in physically impossible ways. Whether due to the graphics or otherwise, I ran into a few glitches that meant I couldn't click on objects I needed to, and so I had to start the levels over.

Wayward Manor has charm for the adorable-goth market, but not so much for puzzle game enthusiasts. It's simple, slightly janky and kind of cute, with an OK story and sub-par game design. In the game, the one Budd family member who is all right by the manor's standards is a young girl – perhaps this game is intended for that same audience, children who don't have as critical an eye for puzzle solving. The young girl also has a stuffed bunny, so maybe Wayward Manor is meant for inanimate animals, too.


This review is based on a Steam download of Wayward Manor, provided by Moonshark.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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